how to digitally archive artwork

how to digitally archive artwork

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-Mildred Howard, Artist

An archive refers to the document(s), or record(s), related to artwork, whether you are an artist, a collector, a gallerist, or the manager of an estate. You can archive a collection of items you have created or ones you have acquired, perhaps through purchase, donation, or trade. The act of archiving includes placing or storing those records in a designated place—ideally, in an organized way.

How to digitally archive artwork
If you asked anyone I know, they would laugh if you told them that I enjoy any type of activity that includes getting organized. I’m the type of person that leaves old coffee mugs in my car and tried and failed the Marie Kondo method in the span of a week. My clothes remain in an angry lump on my couch instead of rolled neatly and happily in my drawers.
I decided to go with Artwork Archive as it was highly recommended from other artists, could capture the breadth of information I was looking to archive, was cloud-based, had neat “extras” like invoicing, a public profile option, and a range of professional pre-formatted reports–and on top of it all, it was the most affordable option.

How to digitally archive artwork
A digital project of a different scale, Digital Kirchner, a Getty Research Institute initiative, centers on a 1917 series of illustrations of the apocalypse created on the back of cigarette boxes by German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). The project involved digitizing the drawings, which were kept in a sketch album preserved in the Research Institute’s special collections. Team members Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Anja Foerschner wrote a scholarly essay about the works, examining the historical and biographical context in which they were created and comparing them to Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse woodcut series.[2] Though this project may appear at first to be a “digitized” rather than “digital” art history project, to use Drucker’s dichotomy, the digitized album was used to develop a beta version of the Getty’s online collaborative platform, the Getty Scholar’s Workspace, released late last year. The Workspace provides a research environment and set of tools (bibliography builder; image comparison, editing, and annotation tools; text editing and annotation tool; correspondence forum; archival material/manuscript presentation tool; and timeline builder) to facilitate communication for research teams examining digital surrogates of artworks and primary source materials. Though this particular project resulted in a research paper, other Workspace collaborations might result in exhibitions, conferences, or other types of publications. In this instance, one artist’s archival materials were used to help build a new way of conducting research within the still-nascent discipline of Digital Art History.
Digital Art History, like its parent field, Digital Humanities, means different things to different people, precisely because it can encompass widely divergent sets of data and ways of exploring that data. In one of the texts working towards defining Digital Art History as a method, “Is There a ‘Digital’ Art History?”, Joanna Drucker distinguishes between a “digitized” art history as one built on the use of online resources (repositories and image collections) and a “digital” art history which uses analytic techniques enabled by digital technology in order to think (or rethink, as the case may be) art historically using digital processes.[1] This might entail collaborative image and artifact viewing and annotating; map, timeline, and network building; or other tools and processes incorporating digital materials. Though useful as a conceptual framework for classifying various modes of digital humanities research, not all digital art history tools fit neatly within this dichotomy. Given that this field is still emergent, how are art historians, archivists, and librarians using digital tools to present and study artists’ archival materials? What might these new uses and ways of conducting art historical research mean for the choices artists make about archiving their materials?

The transmission of an artist’s research, the documentation of any changes in the presentation of the work, and the motivation behind each display are of importance to the continued preservation, re-exhibition and future understanding of the work. However, it is generally acknowledged that existing digital archiving and documentation systems used by many museums, such as The Museum System or Adlib, are not suitable for these particular kinds of artworks due to their rigidity. For example, one cannot easily represent changes in the evolution of the work, nor show the relations between its different elements. 3 Even though standard schema can be adjusted to specific needs, most applications are developed by commercial companies and this kind of flexibility comes at a price. Moreover, proprietary solutions usually have high licensing costs and lack a more open model of governance. To move away from these systems and, more importantly, looking for an approach that can easily be adjusted, shared and adopted by others, the research team focussed on open-source alternatives that would also enable collaborative working to facilitate the (future) sharing and changing of information. With this choice, the team also hoped to build alliances with existing communities of practice, testing and using open-source alternative documentation systems.
Another reason for taking this direction relates to several early steps that were done in archival and conservation practices to test the usefulness of wiki-based platforms and version control systems for documenting artworks. 7 This research could be useful to further the discussion and expand the working methods and possibilities.


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